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Day 2 of Female Characters

It's only the second day, and already I've realised I'm glad that this meme focusses on just celebrating female characters. I'm enjoying this.

Day Two: Favorite supporting female character whom I favour

Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park.

I find Mary just fascinating. Now, believe me, I don't wish to inflict on Fanny the additional indignity of being supplanted in her own novel. Fanny is fine, I don't hate her or her story. But I have the impossible wish to know how Austen would have tackled Mary as a lead character – impossible not just for the fact of her being dead and everything, but because I don't think Austen would have ever written it. There is a moral centre to each of her heroines (although I need to acknowledge here I haven't read NA), whatever their other foibles and flaws, that Mary doesn't have.

More than nearly any other of the chief players in the book, Mary is caught between temperament and upbringing. She is small and spirited, naturally vivid, engaging, quick-witted (btw, I don't really agree with the theory that Austen wrote her as a kind of critique or foil of Elizabeth; Elizabeth was critiqued in her own novel, and Mary is foil to Fanny), and from what we see of her relationship with her brother, sincerely loving. However, she also clearly does not trust anyone but him. She is not cruel or stingy, but she is hard and calculating. Although her manner is naturally bright and pleasing, her worldview is essentially cynical, and utterly pragmatic. And, apart from her sheer charisma, these qualities don't stand out terribly much from most of Austen's stable of supporting female characters.

And yet, she falls in love with Edmund. Pretty much in spite of her upbringing in a hard, selfish, indulgent household – that taught her that everyone looks out for themselves first and will do whatever they can get away with and that is only to be expected, to the extent that she demonstrates no surprise or especial bitterness at being kicked out by her uncle once his wife dies so that he can entertain his mistresses at home, or that her brother will not settle her at his own estate because he has his own pleasure to pursue and doesn't want to be tied down there – in spite of all this, and even in spite of herself, she falls in love with intelligent, principled, idealistic, wants-to-be-a-clergyman Edmund. It really doesn't make any sense, and she holds out against it for some time. Her head never acknowledges that the world might be anything other than the amoral wasteland she (with her brother as her only ally) has had to navigate since childhood – and yet her heart steadily inclines toward something that declares otherwise. She's not self-aware enough to recognise this; in fact, I don't think she can afford to acknowledge how desperately her heart longs to know a selfless love. Such a hope is foolish and naive and sure to be dashed, and she squashes it as much as she can, and yet it still seeps up and out through the cracks ... reaching for Edmund.

Of course, MP being all about the lasting impact of upbringing, neither she nor Henry can escape their pasts even by falling in love with good and worthy objects, and the potential for transformation is lost (if Austen ever believed it possible for them in the first place, which I'm not sure she did). Any future hope will be throttled even more ruthlessly, with the evidence of how this episode turned out for her. Me, I always like to believe in the possibility of redemption, but as Austen makes clear, this always hinges on personal willingness, with all the attendant grief, pain, fear and humility that it takes to truly see yourself and say I am wrong; what must I do to change? Austen rightly shows with Henry that changing in hope of a reward – changing for someone else – is not real change, and Fanny was right to refuse him. Yet at the same time, I would have loved to see if, given long enough exposure to Fanny and Edmund, Henry and Mary might have been challenged to real soul-searching and learn to become better people in and of themselves.

Come to think of it, I don't know that Austen ever did a true redemption arc – bad characters remain bad, good remain good, with only appearances, misunderstandings and immaturity being resolved. She's really rather fatalistic. But somehow that's never bothered me in any of her other novels or characters than Mary (and Henry), who always felt sacrificed to the moral of the story. *side-eyes Austen*

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January 2016
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